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Officials Ramping Up Focus On New Businesses, Economic Development

With deliberations and the authorization by voters of the 2014-15 budget behind them, local officials are focusing intensely on the best way they see for keeping residential taxation in check — growing the Newtown Grand List. That means increasing commercial activity, supporting economic development, and aggressively working to retain or expand businesses already established locally.

In recent months, officials have seen an uptick in commercial projects, as evidenced by the number of recommendations for the town’s business incentive plan that have been tendered by the Economic Development Commission.

Applications for temporary and partial tax relief have been made or approved recently for the Villages at Lexington Gardens, which broke ground this week, the Summit @ Newtown at 146 South Main Street, another multi-building, mixed-use commercial complex adjacent to LMT Communications at 84 South Main Street, new medical offices at 12 Queen Street, and a mixed professional / office development adjacent to Maplewood at Newtown on Mt Pleasant Road.

At the same time, dozens of other businesses have either opened, relocated within town, expanded or have plans to do so.

During the latest Board of Finance and Legislative Council meetings, Director of Community and Economic Development Elizabeth Stocker and her assistant Betsy Paynter have presented an overview of projects under their purview, as well as a look at local brownfields sites that are or may be ripe for reuse once suspected environmental contamination has been verified and abated.

Additionally, Fairfield Hills Authority Chairman Tom Connors is making the rounds bringing top elected officials up to speed on the latest activities on the town-owned campus. He spent about 20 minutes briefing the council on May 7, and is scheduled to appear at future finance and Board of Selectman meetings.

During that presentation, Mr Connors said he and his panel are working to enhance collaboration with town agencies that are involved with Fairfield Hills maintenance or activities, while working with other officials to streamline the process and access to information for those expressing interest in developing projects on campus.

The FHA chairman also mentioned that his near-term goal would be to see the authority become a self-sustaining agency, not reliant on any tax dollars to support day-to-day operations and maintenance. Achieving this goal would further reduce the overall taxpayer burden, however incrementally.

During their more comprehensive presentation, which will be made to the Board of Selectman Monday, May 19, Ms Stocker and Ms Paynter first outlined how their office supports both the economic development commission and FHA. Among their daily duties are supporting comprehensive community development initiatives like grants, overseeing affordable housing units, promoting fair housing, and representing the community on several development strategy boards and the regional brownfields partnership.

Among the local business retention and expansion projects Ms Paynter has handled are the Sandy Hook Cash Mob promotion to help attract customers back to Sandy Hook businesses post-12/14; initiating and supporting a buy local campaign called “The Newtown Way”; and publishing the online Newtown Business Directory, which boasts more than 1,100 reference listings.

Ms Paynter has also assisted in developing, promoting, and supporting two local small business seminar series, the second of which involved partnerships with the regional SCORE chapter, Newtown Savings Bank, and the local Chamber of Commerce. She has published ten glossy newsletters promoting Newtown as a great place to do business, which circulates to hundreds of regional business leaders and commercial brokers, and worked closely with Connecticut Main Street officials on data collection for grant writing purposes.

The economic development officials have also been busy honing the new Sandy Hook branding initiative and promotional campaigns, providing resources for those approaching the town about developing or expanding business here, and arranging an informational meet and greet activity which drew a diverse group of prospective developers and brokers to town.

They are also planning a similar meeting bringing together manufacturers who are presently operating in town with state and regional manufacturing authorities that may support or enhance those businesses.

Brownfields

During her discussion of brownfields, Ms Stocker showed a map identifying each local site and its status. She explained that while these potentially or confirmed contaminated sites pose a public health risk, reclaiming the parcels for partial or full reuse will also create added grand list potential.

The town is currently monitoring nine brownfield sites across the community of varying sizes from the sprawling Batchelder and former D’Addario properties in Botsford to a pair of more concentrated sites on Glen Road near Sandy Hook Center. Ms Stocker is currently managing $722,000 in brownfields remediation grants and has designs on another one that could help the town assess final remediation costs for all remaining contaminated buildings at Fairfield Hills.

Those are included in the $2,159,700 in grants Ms Stockers office has applied for and received, and is now charged with administering. During her tenure, Ms Stocker told the finance board that she has helped bring more than $7 million in grants to the community.

During both her council and finance board presentations, Ms Stocker also indicted that there are many more grants that she believes Newtown could qualify for, but her office lacks the personnel and resources to locate, apply for and/or administer them.

On May 12, Finance Director Robert Tait produced an illustration scenario that complemented the economic development presentation. The document, he said, may eventually inform his next budget forecast.

He told The Bee following the meeting that the report was produced because of the renewed focus on growing the grand list to mitigate future residential taxation. While the information Mr Tait presented are “what if” scenarios, they are rooted in actual projects including the ongoing development of 175 new senior housing units and a sewer extension in the Hawleyville area.

According to the model, sewer development in Hawleyville alone could contribute to as much as $240 million in investments or $170 million in grand list growth in the next three fiscal years — representing a five percent increase. The finance director plans to share his report with selectmen on May 19, and will be bringing it to meetings with the town building, land use and economic development departments as he crafts a comprehensive five-year budget forecast.

Mr Tait hopes to have that forecast with much more reliable data available by late summer.

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